Director: Kazuyoshi Katayama
Screenplay: Hiroshi Yamaguchi and Kazuyoshi Katayama
Based on a manga by Yūji Iwahara
Voice Cast: Kana Hanazawa (as Kasumi Ishiki); Akiko Yajima (as Timothy Laisenbach); Ayako Kawasumi (as Laura Owen); Eri Sendai (as Shizuku Ishiki); Kenji Nomura (as Ron Portman); Kousei Hirota (as Alexandro Pecchino); Sayaka Ohara (as Katherine Turner); Shinichiro Miki (as Peter Stevens); Toshiyuki Morikawa (as Marco Owen); Tsutomu Isobe (as Ivan Coral Vega)
King of Thorn's premise suggested a post-apocalyptic horror narrative when I first heard of it. In an alternative time line, the world is inflicted by the Medusa virus, an incurable disease which when it infects a person eventually turns them to stone, prompting a medical company during the crisis to reveal a secret project to cryogenically freeze a lottery selection of over a hundred people. The test subjects are awoken time later only for a few of them to survive, for when they wake up it's to horrifying monsters living in the facility, isolated on its own island in Scotland, and giant thorns covering everything inside and outside. The remaining individuals - including one half of a pair of female Japanese twins Kasumi Ishiki, a criminal Marco Owens, a female nurse Katherine Turner, an African-American Ron Portman and a young boy Timothy Laisenbach amongst others - are forced to flee and try to survive the monsters rampaging around the facility's many rooms and underground passages, fearing both the Medusa virus still infecting them and the secrets that reveal that not all is what it seems. As a result of this though, what I thought was going to be a post-apocalyptic story isn't that but something else melding sci-fi, horror and fantasy, a gamble but one that could've succeed exceptionally well in terms of creating its own idiosyncratic personality.
The reality of what the premise is and how it plays out, with direct allusions to Sleeping Beauty to a conspiracy narrative, eventually undermines the film. What happens is that the plot becomes more convoluted as numerous plot twists are introduced right up to the end. An advanced computer named A.L.I.C.E. that is meant to look after the cryogenic subjects. The Medusa Virus. The shadiness and experiments from the medical company itself that has lead to imagination literally becoming real and leading to their facility being covered in giant thorns like the castle in the centre of Sleeping Beauty, told the viewer in narration ongoing as an allusion. That's not even getting to the central characters, their own stories and reveals about their characters thrown at the viewer, the most important plot thread here for the entire film that of Kasumi's, the central character, one of two female twins, whose psychological strife and a mystery surrounding her sister Shizuku becomes the central mystery. However this leads to many of them not getting any character detail for them like Ron or Timothy baring the clichés they meant to start out as. (And even a character with some noticeably grim background detail like Katherine being undercut by prioritising other events even with her onscreen, causing one to realise a lot of downsizing of the original manga's length may have been involved). It becomes difficult to filter through as having to juggle emotional back story and its various plot strands becomes a chore rather than naturally fleshed out.
This becomes more disappointing as King of Thorns officially counts as a horror anime, that surprisingly rare breed that I wished existed more often. It's various horrifying monstrosities suggest dark fantasy crossed with sci-fi horror - blind T-Rex like creatures with xenomorph jaws, killer bats, a monstrous entity at the bottom of an elevator shaft that swallows anything that falls down to it - but they're merely background objects throughout to trim down the cast and downsized in threat next to the science fiction story the film eventfully becomes. The genre mixing could've easily been compelling, even in terms of how the premise aesthetically mixes both high-tech science laboratories with a Scottish castle with underground sewers and spiral staircases, the sense of melding different tropes found even in the odd but eventually obvious clue of how the young boy Timothy views the monsters, even when people have died, like videogame monsters to an almost clairvoyant-like level. Because of the emphasis on countless plot stands however it never feels fully fleshed out be it as horror, fairytale, viral horror, anything, when even the Medusa Virus never gets a proper conclusion or meaning to it baring an abruptly revealed but never explained revelation of its origins. Worse, it becomes part of a convoluted plot strange only found in anime where it can be a plot Macguffin to allow other fantastical incidents to happen. Even the most dramatically compelling with Kasumi - an uncomfortable relationship with her sister despite Shizuku loving her, the interesting denouement plot twist set out with a perspective fragmenting structure - is compromised by how ultimately clichéd it is.
Animation wise, while high budgeted, it also suffers from an ill-advised decision to mix three dimensional and two dimensional animation including for the character models for more action intense scenes. As a result, it leads to characters switching mid-scene from crisply drawn figures to a noticeable three dimensions placed on 2D backgrounds, subtle differences in how their facial features and form is altered for a few moments that is an awkward and brutally visible detail. Altogether what could've been an interesting film is one that doesn't find a clear tone for itself, one in King of Thorns which is completely remarkable after the umpteenth plot twist.